April 10, 2020 – By NJP
Over the past few years of watching High School volleyball in New Jersey, we have seen hundreds of games over the regular season, tournaments, and state playoffs. We have seen dozens and dozens of coaches with different styles and motivational techniques. The contrasts are quite distinct. And of course we have developed our own list of favorites. Honestly, there is one coach in the state that we have really looked forward to interviewing. A Coach that has built an automatic respect from the first game we saw him Coach. That Coach is Miguel Cabrita.
Coach Cabrita exemplifies the type of Coach that we would want our kids to play for. There are numerous adjectives that come to mind that describe Coach… thoughtful, motivating, positive, knowledgeable, player-focused… and others. But the word that stands out in our minds is “Class”. He appears to see the bigger picture better than most. He knows when a life lesson is more important than a “W” on the scorecard. His approach to the game is from the standpoint of education. And his players benefit from this in spades.
We so appreciate that Coach took the time to entertain our questions at a time when the world seems to be crumbling. He shares stories of how he started playing the game and positive influences throughout his career. He takes us to a place that is hard to see from the stands. He shares from his heart, which was refreshing and something we need more of these days in our new world.
Coach Miguel’s roots started in the gym at Saint Joe’s. Yes, he was a Falcon himself starting high school at SJ in 1987 and graduating in 1991. “I was the first freshman to play all 4 years at Saint Joe’s. My coach at the time (and she will probably kill me for broadcasting this) was Monica Slattery (current Head Coach at CBA). Monica was my freshman year biology teacher and also was the moderator for open gym volleyball. In the fall of my freshman year they were having open gym volleyball a few times a week.”
We asked Coach how he got into volleyball and he shared “Well, that really was a strange turn of events. I missed my bus home one day in the fall and was stuck at school until after 6 PM since both my parents worked.”
He continued “I ended up walking around the campus and checking out the different clubs and activities that were going on in various classrooms and spaces. I came to the gym and stood in the doors and watched as 11 sophomores through seniors were going through volleyball drills with Mrs. Slattery. She saw me in the doorway and yelled over to me saying “Hey Miguel, do you have your gym clothes with you?” to which I responded, “yes, they are in my locker.” She immediately said, “great, grab them and change, we need 1 more person for 6 on 6.” Immediately I felt the panic wave over my body as I looked onto a court of what seemed like experienced volleyball players and my experience level was 8th grade phys ed class. I yelled back, “I don’t really know how to play.” And almost in unison a few of the seniors yelled back “that’s ok, we will show you.”
Most freshman would be crawling out their skin if asked to mix it up with upper classman, especially in a game that he never played before. But Coach had a YOLO moment. “I ran to my locker and grabbed my clothes, changed and reluctantly walked out onto the court. A few of the older guys took me aside and showed me some of the basics and before I knew it, I was on the court with them and trying to hold my own. Those two hours seemed like 5 minutes. I walked away loving the sport but thinking I had no chance of making this team in the spring.” But little did he know how big an impression he made. “The next day in school, several of the volleyball guys from the day before saw me in the halls and were super nice and encouraging and basically said “you better come back for the next open gyms.” That was all it took. I never missed another open gym. I tried out for the team in the spring and made it. There were only two freshmen on the team that year but eventually I was the only one that continued on through all 4 years.”
As you would expect, Miguel had quite a successful career. “I played as a middle and as an outside over the next 4 years and finished my senior year as Captain and MVP. Back then there were only about 14 teams in the entire state and so we would play some opponents 3 or 4 times a season.” As New Jersey volleyball now has grown from 14 to over 150 this season, Miguel has played a big part in that growth as an advocate for the game as well as running his NJ Premier Volleyball Camps in Central Jersey.
His story continued… “After that freshman year, Coach Slattery left on maternity leave and Coach Bob Fordi took over the program and was the head coach until I took over in 2005, when he and his family moved to England.”
Coach passion for the game continued to grow. “During my high school years, I also got into beach volleyball. I ended up becoming very good friends with Corey Romanak (current Bridgewater head Coach), a very talented freshman volleyball player at SJ when I was a senior. I remember taking Corey under my wing his freshman year as a senior. That was kind of a tradition at SJ that the seniors would pick a freshman that they would work with all season. We ended up becoming beach partners and played for a few years while he was in high school and in my early college years. During my high school years, I also played for Warren SixPak under the direction of the late, great Mario Caruso.”
Coach Cabrita continued on to play at the national level with the Rutgers New Brunswick Men’s Volleyball Team. And eventually was given an opportunity to start Coaching. “Well that is also an unusual story. I was at Rutgers at the time and still playing and coming back as often as I could to work with the current SJ team. One day I remember coach Fordi calling me to say that his JV coach was being put on a long term jury duty case and would I be available to help coach and finish out the season. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to do so. I ended up loving it. Coaching just felt natural to me and I enjoyed watching these young athletes exceed their own expectations and some develop into strong collegiate players and beyond. After that season, I was asked to stay on staff as I finished out my program at Rutgers. Then a teaching position opened up at SJ and Coach Fordi once again reached out to me and said he thought I would be a great fit for it. My plan wasn’t to get into education but coaching suddenly lit a fire in me like nothing had before. I had to see if teaching was for me. I ended up getting the job and the rest is history.”
Coach Cabrita helped the team earn their first ever State Championship Title in 2002 as an Assistant and in 2006 as Head Coach he led his team to a State Sectional title and the overall State Championship title. Two years later, Coach captured his second State Championship title, and set a state record for most wins by a team in a season in all sports in the state of New Jersey with a record of 43-1. He was named Coach of the Year by the NJSIAA, Coach of the Year for the Greater Middlesex Conference and Coach of the Year by the Home News Tribune that year. The next year, he received the 2009 Coach of the Year award from the Star Ledger.
In 2009, Coach Cabrita led his team to the State Sectional Finals and in 2010, his team captured the State Sectional title and received Team of the Year Honors from the Star Ledger. Coach Cabrita captured two more State Sectional Championships in 2011 and 2013 and was also selected as Coach of the Year by the Home News Tribune both in 2013 and 2014. In 2016, Coach Cabrita captured another GMC County Championship and took his team to the State Sectional Finals.
Coach was not only setting male students up for success at SJ but has also coached several high school girls programs. He was an assistant coach at JP Stevens High School, and the Head Coach at Wardlaw Hartridge High School, Rutgers Prep High School, and West Windsor-Plainsboro South H.S. where he received Coach of the Year accolades and helped the team earn their first ever conference championship.
Coach worked at the collegiate level as an assistant coach for the Rutgers Women’s Volleyball Team (D1) and also as Head Coach for the Rutgers Men’s Club Volleyball Team. He led the Men’s team to a third place finish at Nationals in his final year coaching.
Coach Cabrita has worked at numerous collegiate summer volleyball camps including Rutgers University and the University of Delaware. He is also a Volleyball Clinician and travels to various local high schools and middle schools upon request.
Miguel is also a certified volleyball official with the CJVOA and in 2010 was selected as NJ Girls Volleyball Official of the Year by the NJSIAA. His versatility distinguishes him as a major influencer in New Jersey in everything volleyball.
During these difficult times, we discussed how we could potentially brainstorm to figure a way to have “some” volleyball at the High School level. Coach offered some encouraging news. “I expect that we will not have a season this spring, but I know the coaches across the state are actively planning a summer modified season or competition. We want to be able to afford the seniors an opportunity to showcase their talents.” This is awesome news for most New Jersey High School players as the timing of continued isolation requirements continues to push into the Spring season schedule. But Coach also added “I know that this is tougher for our seniors than anyone else, but if I could say one thing to them it would be to take the time now to spend with their family. In a few short months, many will be off to college and possibly away from their families and will look back on the memories they shared with their family during this unprecedented time.”
We asked Coach to share his thoughts on the upcoming season, his goals, and who he felt would be his major competition in league and in the state. “Our goal when we started this season was to make it to the State Finals and bring back another championship to SJ. We know there are a lot of talented teams out there this season and we were expecting to have to work hard to achieve our goal. We know we are in the toughest conference in the state for boys volleyball so just in our conference alone we have several opponents who would challenge us. Old Bridge, East Brunswick, South Brunswick, JP Stevens and Colonia just to name a few have traditionally produced strong programs. State-wide we also expected to see strong competition from Fair Lawn, Bridgewater, Bloomfield, Southern and a few others. We were prepared for the challenge and had over 40 matches scheduled for this season including county and state games. At the end of the season, no other team would have played a more competitive schedule and so we were ready to face the best to be the best.”
We also asked Coach to expand on his players this year and who would be the go-to players to help lead The Falcons to success. “We were expecting to see strong leadership from senior captains Tom Young (leftside), Vaughn McConnell (setter), and Justin Monahan (libero). With 10 total seniors, we certainly had seasoned players returning. Additionally, with junior leftside Christian Trevino returning for his 3rd Varsity season that would certainly add to our strong line up. Finally, we have about 7 sophomores and juniors who have already proven themselves on the Varsity court during the pre-season. They would have been great additions to our line-up. And we also have a 6-10 freshman with several years of club volleyball experience to round out our squad. All together about 18 players on a squad that was ready to go the distance.”
Coaching style came up as a topic and we asked about how Coach motivates his players. He told us “For those who have played for me, they know I am not a screamer. I believe in setting expectations and pushing each athlete individually to reach their max potential. I have always been about the team concept and not the individual.”
The climate in NJ High School volleyball, with now over 150 teams, can always present challenges. We asked Coach to share some of his challenges as a Coach in the current environment. He shared “Although SJ volleyball is well known in the volleyball world, it is not as easy as some may think to live up to that standard. First of all, as a small private school of 500 students (equivalent to a school of 1000 co-ed) we don’t have as many athletes to select from like many of our public school rivals with 2-3 thousand in population. And while many say that private schools recruit and bring athletes in, as the assistant principal and admissions director, I can say that is certainly untrue at Saint Joe’s. Furthermore, when it comes to volleyball, there really aren’t many experienced players before high school. In fact, many of the public schools now have middle school feeder programs so those athletes have a chance to develop early. We do not have a middle school or a feeder program.”
He also added “Those things aren’t even the most challenging. The most challenging is that our students come from 7 different counties and sometimes our players live over an hour away from each other. Why does this matter? Well, anyone that knows high school volleyball knows that most of the hard work happens in the off-season with players playing on club teams years round. Unfortunately, since NJ is still behind in times when it comes to coaches working with their players in the offseason, we have to rely on club programs to offer our athletes the opportunity to develop. So how does this impact SJ (and other private schools) differently than their public school counterparts? Many of our players who play club end up playing on different club teams because of where they live. So while the public school players, for the most part can play together on one club team and develop team chemistry early, our players are scattered across clubs and often don’t get the opportunity to work on team chemistry and team development.”
Coach has an infectious way of building a brotherhood at SJ’s. We have interviewed many of his players and they all refer to the camaraderie that exists on the team and how it comes direct from the top. That same brotherhood that made Miguel himself feel comfortable and willing to come back in Mrs. Slattery’s gym when he was a freshman. When a team gels together… when you can rely on your brothers as one cohesive unit… magical things can happen. We sense that the Falcon magic will be going strong when play continues… at a time when everyone needs to finally come together for the greater good of the world. Sports can be the conduit to bring individuals back from their isolation and unite us all in one spirit, even if we remain 6 feet apart.